When LaMarcus Aldridge announced on Saturday morning that he was forgoing the recommended surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, the typical reaction was one of sudden euphoria mixed with a late twinge of worry. The joy of seeing LMA back in the Portland lineup was one thing, but the long-term fears for the franchise player's health were another.
What if Aldridge aggravates the injury? What if he survives playing hurt, but he's not effective? What if he does all right for the next few weeks, or even months, but jeopardizes his health over the long run? The questions abounded, and they were legitimate ones. Passing up a surgery with an expected recovery time of 6-8 weeks and playing instead is a gutsy move. It's cause for concern.
Then Aldridge showed up and poured in 64 points on 45 shot attempts in his first two games back, and at that point just about everyone shut up.
This merits a closer look. How on Earth is he doing it? You've got to imagine the big fella's working through quite a bit of pain, and it's probably pretty frustrating to play 35 minutes a night with one of your hands heavily taped up. It requires a lot of dexterity, physical and mental both, to find a way through it. So far, it's working.
So what has Aldridge done? Based on the two-game sample we've got so far, I'd say he's made some creative modifications to his game, working to remain effective while limiting his exposure to further injury. It's pretty interesting to watch. Let's check out a few examples, shall we?
This first clip is from the very first quarter after Aldridge announced his return - the opening minutes of Saturday night's tilt at home against the Wizards. Here's a look at LMA matched up one-on-one against Nene:
Watching Aldridge on this play, the first thing you notice is that he's not all that eager to establish strong post position against the opposing big man. They're listed at around the same size - LMA at 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds, Nene at 6-11, 250 - but Nene can be a relentless, physical, sometimes downright nasty player to scrap with on the low block. Aldridge with his hurt thumb wants no part of that, so he instead lingers outside the paint, 10-12 feet away from the basket. When he finally gets the ball, on a funky entry pass from Allen Crabbe, watch the way he gets his shot. He's facing Nene with his left side (remember, it's the left hand that's injured), so instead of going at him, he turns slightly, fades away and makes a leaning 16-footer that can't be tampered with. Talk about a low-risk, efficient shot.
On the ensuing possession, we saw more of the same. Here's a very similar play from seconds later, only this time with Marcin Gortat guarding Aldridge instead of Nene:
This is the same approach, only even more pronounced than before. Aldridge actually goes to great lengths to disguise his shot here against Gortat! Since he just used the "approach the left block, then step back and hit fadeaway" move on the previous possession, he's got to mix it up a little bit - doesn't want to be too predictable. So he actually puts the ball on the floor and dribbles hard as if to attack the painted area, and it works, as you can see Gortat chase him a little bit. Then again, as in the previous play, Aldridge simply steps back and lofts a jumper. He's so long and controls his shooting motion so well, it's basically unguardable.
Aldridge's first game back was a fairly strong one - 26 points on 22 shots, an efficient night in which he helped the Blazers to a comeback win over a solid East playoff team. The only criticism? It was a tad monotonous - he feasted on a fairly consistent stream of mid-range jumpers. No man can live on the mid-range alone. In his second game back, against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, he began to broaden his horizons a little bit, and it paid off:
This is an interesting clip because again, Aldridge gets the ball in his same old spot above the left block, only instead of being guarded by a beastly inside presence like a Nene or a Gortat, he's up against Kevin Love, who is anecdotally and statistically one of the absolute worst rim protectors in the league. Even with a banged-up thumb, LMA could probably take Love into the post without a problem. Instead he passes up that opportunity, waiting for the double team and kicking out to Wesley Matthews to reset the offense. After a few passes, Wes fires a jumper - and look at Aldridge's position. He's 18 feet away, clearly not willing to fight with Timofey Mozgov for the rebound. Instead he cheats into the corner, watches as Wes fortunately recovers his own long rebound, and he's able to knock down a 3 before Iman Shumpert has time to close out.
Wanna hear a crazy stat? Aldridge took three 3-pointers on Wednesday against the Cavaliers. Last year, he took three in the entire month of January. In 501 minutes, spanning 14 games. Clearly, as the big man ages and deals with his changing health situation, he's had to adapt his game.
I want to show one last clip. This is another one from Wednesday night's battle with the Cavaliers, but it's in a different vein - there's no fadeaway jumper, no adaptation, no caution at all really. Just gutsy basketball:
An entirely different play from the three we witnessed earlier. LMA gets the ball in the same spot, and rather than shy away from Mozgov, he seizes the moment. With less than two minutes to go in a close game against a great team, he decides to go right at Mozgov. With a couple of dribbles, he's in the paint heaving one up, thumb injury be damned. And though he misses the shot, you have to admire his hustle. When the rebound sails long, Aldridge chases after it and - leading with his injured left hand, mind you - dives on the ball just in time to wrestle sole possession away from Mozgov and call a timeout. Because he was willing to sacrifice his health just for a split-second, he earned his team an extra possession in a critical moment.
The bottom line is that Aldridge and the Blazers need to pace themselves carefully. There are 36 games still to play in the regular season, plus another four playoff series beyond that if they play their cards right. Even a fully healthy Aldridge, who's nearing 30 years of age and 22,000 career minutes on his NBA odometer, isn't going to be able to kill himself for maximum effort all 48 minutes the rest of the way. He's always been a "pick his spots" kind of player - and now that he's playing hurt, he'll just have to be even more so. Between now and the late spring, we're going to see a small handful of moments like the one we witnessed late in that Cleveland game, with Aldridge going all out and diving on the hardwood thumb-first, but those plays might be a bit fewer and farther between than we're used to. That's OK. The season is a grind, and Portland can't afford to let its franchise player be ground up.
What happens now is a transition period in which the new Aldridge feels his way through adversity, figuring out which elements of his game still work and which might need to be modified. That might not happen overnight, but the good news is that this thumb injury popped up in January, not April. Aldridge and his teammates have time to adjust to their new reality.
We know Aldridge is working on it already, and it's heartening to see that even at the start of that process, he's playing well. Make no mistake, though: Aldridge's game is still a work in progress as we speak. Here's what he told Blazers reporter Casey Holdahl about his recovery early this week:
"I wouldn't say I have it totally figured out yet. I still haven't mastered shooting it with the left yet without having my thumb as strong as it should be, but I'm learning more every day. The main thing for me is just being comfortable. Taking my shot, I think I've figured out how to get my shot to feel comfortable, and I think that's the most important thing, shooting midrange and just being able to take my turnaround jump shot and not feel like it's in the way. So that's been great for me."
Over the course of a long season, "comfort" is relative. You go through setbacks and you roll with them. It happens to every player and every team, every year. With Aldridge and the Blazers, it's encouraging to see that they're confidently figuring things out on the fly.